Evaluating the President’s proposals to raid, ruin or-as he prefers to say-”reform” Social Security should begin by contrasting what his minions tell the public with what they tell each other in private. They are manipulating us with images while they mislead us about their purposes.
The most inspiring and venerable image was provided by Progress for America, a front group for the Bush White House, which recently aired a television commercial promoting the partial privatization of the pension system. The ad shows Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing the original legislation that created Social Security in August 1935; it praises the late President for the “courage” he displayed back then and proclaims that similar fortitude will be required to “protect” the system now.
The ad’s not-so-subliminal suggestions are that George W. Bush equals Franklin D. Roosevelt, and that Mr. Bush seeks to honor Roosevelt.
While that reassuring ad was still running on the cable networks, a confidential White House memo leaked to the press. Written by Peter Wehner, an aide to political boss Karl Rove, the memo outlined the President’s strategy for pursuing changes in Social Security. After explaining why the White House must create a sense of crisis about the system’s future, and arguing that there should be sharp cuts in benefits, Mr. Wehner touted the true ideological aim of this campaign.
“For the first time in six decades,” he wrote, “the Social Security battle is one we can win-and in doing so, we can help transform the political and philosophical landscape of the country.” Of course, the last time Republicans “lost” the Social Security debate was in 1935, when they tried to block the program’s creation. They lost again in 1964, when their Presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, wanted to abolish the system and lost all but six states in an historic landslide. Mr. Wehner’s remarks raise the suspicion that he means not to protect but to overturn Roosevelt’s landmark achievement, which remains the most successful social program in American history.
There could hardly be any tactic more deceptive than appropriating Roosevelt to undo his legacy, but that ad man’s lie represents the pervasive fraudulence of the White House sales effort. Once again, as in the drive to war with Iraq, the President and his aides are misleading us with false cries of crisis and false promises of deliverance. Already, despite their failure to provide any detailed plan, contradictions in their rhetoric are undermining their credibility.
At a staged event to promote his privatization scheme, Mr. Bush recently said that Social Security is going “bankrupt.” Yet the government’s own projections indicate that the Social Security Trust Fund can pay full benefits until sometime between 2042 and 2052, or roughly half a century from now. Why does he claim to be so worried about a minor financial problem that won’t arise for decades, if ever, while he remains unfazed by the threat of global warming?
Permitting private accounts won’t resolve those potential funding shortfalls in any case, according to the federal government’s own analysts, including the U.S. Comptroller General. The only realistic solution, according to the Wehner memo, is to change the method used to calculate benefits-and cutting them sharply. Why then would Mr. Bush insist on borrowing $2 trillion or more to finance privatization, thus creating additional debt for the young people whose future checks will also be slashed?
According to Mr. Bush, Social Security will someday break the national budget with unsupportable demands unless his proposals are enacted. Last year, however, he triumphantly signed a Medicare prescription drug plan that-by the government’s own reckoning-will cost trillions of dollars more than Social Security. Why does he consider that election-year spending program prudent?
The President’s warnings to younger workers are based on pessimistic projections about economic expansion during the coming decades. At the same time, his bet on the fattening of private accounts relies on more optimistic projections. Should those happier estimates prove accurate, Social Security may never confront any significant financial problems. Why is Mr. Bush playing a shell game with expectations about growth?
The President and other advocates of privatization predict that private accounts will provide considerably higher retirement income than Social Security. In other countries where pension systems have been privatized, such as Great Britain, most workers haven’t profited much from private accounts. Indeed, many British economists now believe that the vaunted “reform” enacted by Margaret Thatcher two decades ago was a disastrous mistake-and that pensioners there would be better off under a system like ours.
So why is Mr. Bush so determined to dismantle a system that has worked for seven decades, at great expense and enormous risk? He says he wants to save Social Security and improve the nation’s fiscal integrity. Of course, if termites could talk, they would probably say they’re trying to reinforce the foundation of your house.
Follow Joe Conason via RSS.